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Renew your energy: December 2009 Archives

There has been plenty of bad news about nuclear power recently (e.g. see my last-but-one blog), but in the seasonal spirit of "good will to all", here is something a little bit more positive – and lighthearted!

The UK is planning to get around 8% of its electricity from nuclear plants at some point after 2020 – and around 30% from renewables. It might be argued that, instead of trying to compete with renewables, coal and gas in the electricity market, which may prove hard, perhaps nuclear ought to look to other markets.

Top of the range options include the production of hydrogen, and possibly other synfuels, that could be used in vehicles – that is a high added-value product. I looked at some of the emerging ideas for hydrogen and synfuel production in an earlier post.

The US Department of Energy's new "Next Generation Nuclear programme", with up to $40 m on offer for an initial planning phase, is now looking at the idea of extending the application of nuclear energy "into the broader industrial and transportation sectors". But high temperature reactors of the type being explored are still some way off & work on South Africa's Pebble Bed Modular Reactor was recently halted due to financial constraints.

Less speculatively, you don't need new technology: conventional nuclear plants, like all steam raising power stations, produce a lot of waste heat. There has been much talk recently of using some of this for local heat networks – linked to nuclear "Combined Heat and Power" plants. Some plants in Russia already do this, as I noted in an earlier post: Selling heat as well as power can improve their economics.

Heat from the turbines at nuclear plants is already quite widely used for other purposes. For example the 5400 MW nuclear plant at Gravelines, near Dunkirk, feeds waste heat to a Sea Bass farm, which evidently produces around half of all worlds' farmed sea bass. And the existing Olkiluoto nuclear power station in western Finland, provides heat for growing Latvian zilga grapes in a nearby vineyard. Even more exotically, there is a large tourist crocodile farm at Civeaux in Provence, fed with heat from a nearby nuclear plant. I'm sure there are other examples.

Perhaps more practically, nuclear plants have been used for the desalination of seawater. For example, in Japan, I'm told, 10 desalination facilities linked to pressurized water reactors operating for electricity production have yielded 1000–3000 cubic metres/day each of potable water, and more than 100 reactor-years of experience have accrued, while Pakistan plans a desalination plant coupled to its KANUPP reactor near Karachi. Morocco is also, it seems, planning nuclear-powered desalination, as is China (at Yantai, producing 160,000 cu m /day, using a 200 MW reactor). And South Korea and Argentina have each developed small PWR-type reactors designed for cogeneration of electricity and potable water.

Mind you, renewables can also do this. The various Concentrated Solar Power plants being built of planned in North Africa can desalinate seawater. And in Texas, Renew Blue's wave-powered "Sea Dog" water-pump device is near completion, on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico. It will desalinate seawater. Some could then be sold in bottles, rather than Perrier and the like.

I know the risks of contamination with nuclear material are miniscule, but somehow, personally, I'd prefer my water to be kept well away from radioactivity. So, if I needed bottled water, I'd prefer Renew Blues' offering. But then some spa waters are very mildly radioactive, which was once claimed to be part of their curative value. And, it might be a bit of a stretch, but these days the nuclear industry sometimes argues that low levels of radiation aren't that dangerous: Radiation risks questioned.

On balance though, I think I will stick to beer. Happy Christmas drinking, whatever your choice!

Wave power and tidal current turbine technology, if successfully developed, could supply the UK with about 20% the electricity it needs and possibly much more. The UK has one of the world's best resources, but there are also significant potentials elsewhere. For example it has been claimed that the US could generate 10% of its electricity from wave and tidal schemes.

Wave power was the initial leader – the UK launched a R&D programme in the 1970, with some scale model devices being tested in open water. However we then lost a couple of decades following the withdrawl of government funding for most of the work in 1982 and for the remainder in 1994. Work on Tidal power was also halted – the emphasis at that time being on large tidal barrages across estuaries. Now however, all three options, wave, tidal-current turbines and tidal barrages, are back on the agenda, with the UK still being in the lead, just.

Tidal current turbines seem to have the edge in many ways. Whereas with wave energy you are trying to extract energy from a chaotic interface between water and air with multiple energy vectors, with tidal flows, a few metres under the sources, you have nice laminar flow and a more stable environment. And whereas with barrages you are in effect blocking an entire estuary, with freestanding tidal turbines you are only intercepting parts of the flow, so the environmental impact is much lower.

It's perhaps not surprising then that there are reputedly 150 or so tidal projects at various scales under tests around the UK. Most are small lab tests but some full-scale systems are now in place – notably the 1.2 MW Seagen tidal turbine in Strangford Loch, Northern Ireland. That has now been signed up to received Renewable Obligation Certificates for the power it feeds the grid. A 10 MW tidal farm is now planned off Anglesey. Next in line is the novel "Open Hydro" open-centred turbine device, the Pulse Tidal oscillating hydrofoil system, the "Lunar Energy" ducted rotor device and Neptune's vertical-axis "Proteus" ducted rotor.

There are many others under test – for example TidalStream Ltd reports that their unique tidal-turbine platform design – Triton – has successfully undergone validation testing at the deep-water test basin at Ifremer in Brittany, France. Meanwhile Swanturbine's Cygnet device is being be assembled at Swanturbine's facilities in South Wales ready for deployment at the European Marine Energy Centre Tidal Test Site (EMEC) in Orkney. A 1.8 MW full-scale machine is under development. And ScotRenewables, located on the Orkney Islands, has raised £6.2 m to build a working prototype of its floating tidal turbine. An 8-metre long prototype will, it's hoped, go into the water at the EMEC in 2010. Commercial versions would weigh 250 tonnes, and have generation capacity of 1.2 MW.

There are many more projects emerging elsewhere in the world, such as Clean Current's ducted rotor and Verdant Power's propeller units, as well as some novel ideas like Indigo Pearl Marine's open centre "Mer" Vertical Axis Turbine tidal device, while Atlantis, who had already developed a ducted rotor system, have just announced details of a new double-rotor propeller unit, with contra-rotating blades.

But wave energy is not out of the race. The leader is the UK developed Pelamis wave snake system – a 2.2 MW version of which was installed in Portugal. There have however been minor hitches with this system as you'd expect with any new technology – and money for new projects is tight. But new ideas for wave energy are emerging. Cornish wave power developer Orecon has won a contact to install three of its 1.5&nnbsp;MW wave devices off Portugal. Meanwhile a 350 KW version of Aquamarine's Oyster sea bed mounted "hinged flap" inshore system has been under test in the UK. Next will be a 2 MW demonstration unit, to be expanded if all goes well to 10 MW in 2012. Cardiff-based Tidal Energy Ltd meanwhile is about to test its DeltaStream wave device.

A clever new idea is the 500 kW Wave Treader (developed by Aberdeen-based Green Ocean Energy), which is a new wave unit designed to be attached to an offshore wind-turbine tower, adding to its energy output while sharing the infrastructure costs of cabling and foundations. And Web Engineering in Wiltshire have developed and patented a Sea Wave Energy Accumulator Barge, a novel variation to the "overtopping" reservoir wave-energy concept, but fixed to the sea bed, unlike the floating Danish "Wave Dragon" system.

Progress is also being made on the novel Danish Waveplane concept, which has a series of slots, in three rows, with the higher waves reaching the top row of slots, the rest going into the lower ones. The captured water is let tangentially into a horizontal pipe in such a way as to create a spinning vortex of water, which drives a turbine. Even so it's certainly not always straight forward to develop new ideas. For example, the UK's Trident Energy has been deploying its novel linear motor based wave device for testing off the Suffolk coast at Southwold, but its 20 kW demonstration device sank when being taken out to sea. Moreover, while small wave and tidal systems may be interesting, there is still inevitably a major focus on large tidal barrages, if nothing else because of their scale-like 11-mile long 8.6 GW barrage proposed for the Severn estuary. A new round of consultation on that and its rivals is planned and interest is still being shown in smaller barrages elsewhere in the UK, including the Mersey, Solway Firth, the Wash and the Humber.

The UK maybe at the forefront in tidal power and also wave power but the potential elsewhere is also large – especially for tidal. For example, Tidal Today's second annual Tidal Summit held in London in November was told that South Korea's theoretical tidal resource was up 1000 GW, and they have some ambitious projects underway or planned, including nearly 2 GW of tidal range projects and 100 MW of tidal current turbines.

That's not to say that wave power is out of the running – there are many projects underway around the world, including a range of tethered buoy systems, and in the UK work is in now underway on the £42 m Wave Hub project 10 miles off the coast of North Cornwall. The seabed "socket" can take up to four devices at any one time for field testing, without the need for them to build additional grid links. That could speed up the development wave power.

For updates on these and other renewable energy projects, visit

The nuclear industry does seem to be having bad luck. Its flagship new projects, the European Pressurized water Reactors (EPRs) being built in Finland and France, are both well behind schedule and seriously over-budget, with a range of construction problems and errors pushing up costs and putting completion years away. For example the estimated final costs for Olkiluoto 3 in Finland have risen from €3 bn to €4.5 bn and the completion date has been put back from 2009 to 2012. The second plant, at Flamanville in France, is already 9 months behind schedule, and is not now expected to begin operation until 2013, rather than 2012 as originally hoped. The cost of the power produced by it will be around 20% more than planned – around €55/MWh instead of the €46 announced when the project was launched in May 2006.

Certainly a surprising number of a safety issues have emerged during construction; evidently more than 3,000 mistakes have made by the builders so far at Olkiluoto. See the quite striking poster summary from Greenpeace at

Some of this might be put down to teething problems with "first of a kind" plants. But perhaps more fundamentally for the future, UK, Finnish and French nuclear-safety regulators have objected to aspects of the EPR design: "The EPR design, as originally proposed by the licensees and the manufacturer, Areva, doesn't comply with the independence principle, as there is a high degree of complex interconnectivity between the control and safety systems."

As World Nuclear News noted, some safety systems protect against the failure of control systems and so should be impossible for them to fail together, which means Areva must re-work the design if it is to get regulatory clearance – and before construction of EPRs in the UK.

Meanwhile the US nuclear regulator has objected to a key part of the Westinghouse AP1000 design: it said that it would have to be modified to receive approval for use in the US.

The AP1000 is another candidate for UK deployment.

The UK Health & Safety Executive is looking at both the EPR and AP1000 designs, and, according to media reports had identified possible problems which, if not progressed satisfactorily, would mean that H&SE "would not issue a design acceptance confirmation".

H&SE however pointed out that they were only part way through their assessment and that there were confident that any issues would be resolved.

Some politicians also seem confident about the merits and viability of a major new nuclear programme. Gordon Brown told the CBI that "we will now build not 12 gigawatts of nuclear capacity but 16 gigawatts, a total for new building that is bigger than all our current nuclear capacity". But with possible technical problems still unresolved, and with delays mounting, the prognosis for rapid deployment does not look too good.

The financing issues are also looking difficult. Although the UK government have insisted they will not subside the nuclear programme directly, the City Group economic consultants have concluded that nuclear can't be financed just by private sector: In fact, although no direct financial support is being given, a range of indirect subsidies are in train. For example, government seems to be accepting to need to support a "floor price" for carbon in the EU Carbon Trading System of around £30/tonne, which would help make nuclear more economic, but would load consumers up with extra costs. The Times talked about an extra £227 on annual energy bills, although EDF put it lower. Even so, it's likely to be politically difficult.

And more problems are looming. Plans for long-term nuclear waste disposal could come unstuck because of new evidence of corrosion in copper, a material that was to be used to seal waste underground. Examination of copper artefacts from the Vasa, a 15th-century galleon raised from Stockholm harbour, has shown a level of decay challenging the scientific wisdom that copper corrodes only when exposed to air.

The waste issue is likely to be made even tougher since, to improve their economics, the new nuclear plants proposed for the UK will have high fuel "burn-up". This means that the fuel is enriched to a higher level and stays in the reactor longer, with more of the fuel being converted to plutonium and other radioactive by-products of fission. This in turn means that the spent fuel is hotter and more radioactive- which could present problems with plant operation, waste management, storage and disposal. Especially since, given that there are no plans for reprocessing, it will have to be kept on site at the nuclear plant for many decades (EDF has just suggested 60 years for the proposed new plant at Sizewell) before it goes off somewhere (as yet undetermined) to be kept isolated for 100,000 years or so.

All this makes it rather hard to accept the governments claim, in its recent the National Policy Statement (NPS) on nuclear, that it is "satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations" and that "as a result the IPC [Infrastructure Planning Commission] need not consider this question" when reviewing the plant planning applications.

This has drawn a lot flack. Four former members of CoRWM, the UK government's first advisory committee on radioactive-waste management, including its chair Prof. Gordon Mackerron, noted that their 2006 report had only looked at "legacy" waste – the new wastes opened up new issues: "In the absence of a process or acceptable policy for new build wastes, they may remain on site indefinitely. It is quite possible that, as a result of sea level changes, storm surge and coastal processes, conditions at some of the most vulnerable coastal sites will deteriorate thereby making it increasingly difficult to manage the wastes safely. The problems presented by managing wastes in the very long-term will be both generic and site-specific. Consequently we find it hard to understand why the IPC, when considering applications for the development of individual sites, need not consider the question of waste management. Given the levels of public anxiety raised by the issue of nuclear waste and the burdens of risk and management that are imposed on future generations we believe consideration of safe management of wastes at each site should be a primary concern of the IPC."

The NPS is a consultative draft. Whether the suggested block on discussion of waste by IPC will survive remains to be seen.

In his speech to the British Wind Energy Association's Annual conference earlier this year, Conservative Shadow Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, said that renewable-energy companies should be encouraged to offer greater benefits to the local communities who agree to host wind farms. He said that the Conservatives: "...want to see communities benefiting from new wind development in their area. This is why I would encourage renewable energy companies to offer discount rates or shares in commercial projects to the local community so they can shares in the profit. We will also look at changing licence obligations to allow companies to offer discounts to those living near to a facility. Of course, more and different innovations should be expected from private industry. Whilst this will never take away the local community's ability to say no to a development, it sets out clearly that there can be benefits to hosting a facility, which is the right approach to increasing the number of wind turbines in the UK."

The Local Government Association had already come up with a similar idea – residents should be offered discounts on their energy bills and free energy efficiency measures when wind farms are built in their community, with a "community tariff" to share the financial benefits of renewable energy generation with local communities The ideal of offering compensation to win local approval for projects perceived to have negative local impacts is not new – the nuclear industry has been doing it for decades. Some wind farm developers have also provided grants for community projects, or other inducements to smooth the way to acceptance – though nothing yet as ambitious as the current plan to provide very large incentives and local benefits to any community willing to accept a nuclear waste repository in their area. Perhaps worth £1 billion or more. By contrast, the going rate for wind farms is evidently only in the ten to hundred thousand range!

Charles Hendry's approach is a bit more radical – he suggests offering continuing income via shares, or even discounted prices for electricity locally. It's hard to see exactly how that would work – where do you draw the local boundary? Just for those in sight of the wind farm? As with other forms of compensation, it could backfire – it may be perceived as being an attempt at bribery to win local acceptance. A much more direct option is of course for local communities to club together and invest in their own wind farm, or some other such scheme, to be run as a partly or wholly locally owned co-op project. Then, after they have paid back any loans, they get all the cash benefits.

This is very common in Denmark, where about 80% of the wind projects are owned either by local farmers or local wind co-ops (the "Wind Guilds"). One result has been very much less opposition to wind power. As the Danes say "your own pigs don't smell". As a consequence, Denmark now gets around 20% its power from the wind – with local people even owning shares in large offshore wind farms like the one off Copenhagen and the one off the Island of Samsoe. It's similar in Germany, with about half of the 25 GW of wind projects being locally owned.

By contrast, there are only a handful of community-owned schemes in the UK, which has only managed to get 4 GW of mostly large company-owned wind farms installed so far. One of the main problems here, apart from local opposition, is the nature of the UK's Renewable Obligation support scheme, which, to put it charitably, is not designed for community schemes. The proposed new Feed-in Tariff for schemes up to 5 MW may help. That is certainly the experience with Feed-in Tariffs elsewhere in the EU.

Direct financial gain is of course only one possible type of compensation. There could also be local employment gains. These can be overstated. On-site construction work is inevitably only temporary – a few months for a wind farm. Operational jobs may be permanent, but not many people are needed. The real job gains are in manufacturing the equipment. In Spain and Portugal wind farm developers must show how many jobs they will create by sourcing supplies locally in order to get planning approval for their projects. Vestas has noted "There is a strong political will in most countries to favour local manufacturers." But not so far in the UK. Indeed we don't have any significant wind technology manufacturing going on here. Instead we import the hardware.

Not everyone agrees with "local content" rules: they are seen as protectionist – undermining free markets. But then you might say the same of any attempt to provide local advantages via compensation. In effect you are trying to "internalise" locally some benefits which otherwise, unlike the local impact costs, are "externalised".

To keep up to date on renewable energy developments and policies, visit